A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
While the Old Testament God needed 40 days of rain to remake the world, today's players of computer "God-games" just wait for the next software release. Those addicted to two massively popular historical strategy games, Microsoft/Ensemble Studios' Age of Empires and Sierra/Impressions' Caesar III, can now indulge in a sequel and a pre-quel to those titles, respectively. Neither is a major departure from the conceptual framework of such games (see "Simulated Caesars," January/February 1999), but both present incremental improvements that help armchair potentates get even more of that old omnipotent feeling.
Most improved is Microsoft's package, which has now been recast in medieval times and titled Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings. Once again, players control one of several states competing for power and resources. Like the last version, this game offers a rich visual context, with landscapes, wild animals, structures, and people, exquisitely modeled and realistically animated. Its "real-time" action, which disposes of the clumsy and artificial expedient of turn-taking, is a particular challenge against fast and efficient computer opponents. Players can choose from a range of roughly contemporaneous cultures (Mongol, Viking, Turk, Goth, etc.), each with its own characteristic strengths and weaknesses.
Several minor adjustments make this a much improved game. Because the first Empires offered no options for assigning how troops move or fight, it presented the paradoxical spectacle of, say, hoplites incapable of marching in phalanxes. The sequel does indeed allow players to select formations: pikemen can assume defensive boxes, cavalry can rumble across the field in imposing lines, and whole armies can march off to distant battles with vulnerable units nestled nicely in the center. The results are highly gratifying.
Pharaoh is a translation of Sierra/Impressions' best-selling Caesar III into ancient Egypt. Again, you are cast as the governor of an ancient simulated city, responsible for everything from fire-protection to trade routes to military procurement and tactical command. In short, it is a micro-managers' paradise. The difference here, of course, is that the game is set on the Nile, with its peculiar resources and problems. Yearly inundations both foster and complicate agriculture--fertility is jeopardized if Osiris isn't regularly propitiated with shrines or festivals.
Pharaoh gets a lot less challenging once the basics of managing resources and money are mastered. Like Caesar III, the game lacks a wider strategic frame that might allow players to explore their own trade routes or to conquer other cities. But compared to the layers of mystification now piled upon ancient Egyptian culture, the game is a welcome reminder: the Egyptians were great not because they mummified their dead, but because they were good at exploiting the land and making things.
Layers of mystification is what Altor Systems' Nightfall is all about. The black sheep of the bunch, Nightfall is a newcomer and is not yet available in a PC version. It is also not a strategy exercise but instead what gamers call a first-person "adventure" game, where the player is invited to explore a virtual 3-D environment. Here, you are cast as an archaeologist who has accidentally become sealed in a vast Egyptian tomb complex. Using your mouse as a pointer, you can walk or run or swim through the tomb's apparently endless corridors and levels, pausing to examine whatever artifacts you wish.
Clearly, a lot of work went into crafting Nightfall. The quality of the lighting, for instance, is quite convincing, and the wall paintings and reliefs do convey a certain authenticity--at least from a virtual distance. There is a certain appeal in simply wandering the place, steeping oneself in ersatz atmosphere and low-key suspense.
Then again, why are the trumped-up mysteries of this tomb necessarily more interesting than a 3-D experience of, say, the real tomb of Rameses II or of the Great Pyramid of Khufu? Surely enough information on the actual tomb of King Tut exists for programmers to visualize it the way it was discovered by Howard Carter. Players might even learn something real from such an "adventure." At the risk of seeming deliberately naive, why is the programmer's first impulse always to conjure up a phoney Egypt?
Age of Empires II:
The Age of Kings
Nicholas Nicastro is a writer and filmmaker who lives in Ithaca, New York.
Finatec Multimedia's Olympia is an ambitious attempt to present an illustrated history of both the ancient and modern Olympic Games. Its creators are fairly successful at presenting evidence for the ancient games in the context of classical history, art, and architecture, and the CD-ROM is suitable for a variety of audiences. Produced under the auspices of the Greek Olympic Committee, Olympia will be a useful companion to the 2004 summer games in Athens.
The program is divided into five principal parts. "Athletic Spirit" discusses what ancient athletics were like in each of the Greek prehistoric and historical periods using the evidence from sculpture, vase painting, and architecture. "Time Traveler" is a general discussion of the historical periods under consideration, the Bronze Age to the modern era. "Olympia, the Games in Ancient Greece," concerns the organization of the festival, the events, and the athletes. This section features a tour of the archaeological site of Olympia as well as a visit to its museum. A number of the athletic and equestrian events depicted here include re-creations of athletes taking part. These are fairly rudimentary. The "Glossary" includes a helpful definition of words dealing with the ancient Olympic games. "Revival, The Olympics Today" includes a substantial text, with early traveler's drawings and paintings and also includes a series of historical photographs of the excavation of Olympia by the German Archaeological Institute. A section is also included on each of the modern Olympic Games through the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer and the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona.
I have used Olympia in my undergraduate class on ancient athletics with limited success. Although the students were generally interested in the novelty of the presentation, they did not see it as something they would regularly consult. Showing it to our two 12-year-olds, however, was another matter. They were interested enough to sit with Olympia for over 30 minutes, going from one part of the program to another. Overall there is a lot of good information accompanied by clear photographs, handsome graphics, and reasonable text, and I would recommend it to a general audience.
Olympia, 2,800 Years
David Gilman Romano is a senior research scientist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.